Scientists hope to find a ‘cure’ for getting old, or at least from ageing faster than we should

If current trends continue, by 2050 the world population will include over 400 million people aged over 80.

They will be mainly living in the more developed areas but, as the general level of healthcare improves everywhere along with advances in medical science, the increased proportion of elderly citizens will become a global phenomenon in all societies.

This ever-increasing constituency of seniors already represents a challenge to the resources of those communities offering reasonable levels of social welfare and healthcare; a challenge that will increase in difficulty over time.

In economic terms the dilemma is starkly simple; a growing proportion of non-productive but high level consumers of social resource being supported by a shrinking base of producers.

Both ethically and morally, every society agrees that it owes a duty of care to its senior members and so the challenge is one of balancing the level of that care against the resource available.

Politically this discussion becomes more nuanced as, at least in liberal democracies, the ‘grey’ vote becomes a formidable lobby group for its own aspirations.

In the UK, for example, the median age of the population has risen from 34 to 40 since 1974 with more than 18% of the population over 65.

In 2014 voters aged 52 or more represented more than 51% of the voting constituency and, according to current forecasts, by 2025 voters of 54 or over will be a majority.

Add to that the fact that it will become increasingly more usual for a voter to have an ageing parent or grandparent (or even great grandparent) requiring support and it is clear to governments of all persuasions that this is not an issue that can be ignored or neglected even in the short term.

Which is why researchers from the UK, US, Israel and New Zealand have teamed up to try and tackle the issue from the other side of the challenge.

If we can’t stop people ageing, maybe we can alleviate the impact of ageing on health.

The greatest draw on our resources is not our seniors, but the long term chronically ill seniors who suffer from one or more of the most frequent adjuncts to ageing; like dementia, arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, cancers, heart disease and pulmonary dysfunctions.

One of the major problems is that we rarely identify these problems before they become chronic and then that we can only manage and treat the illness, often at great cost, for the remaining life of the patient which could, hopefully, be for many years.

We are aware of some of the causes and factors that increase the risk of individual patients developing a particular condition and public health policy should reflect a desire to offer preventative measures as a far more desirable option.

The use of statins among seniors in an effort to reduce strokes and heart attacks, for example, has been sanctioned by the health authorities because it is far more cost effective than waiting for a cardiac episode to occur and then dealing with the aftermath.

One might question the medical wisdom in some of these policies, but the logical motive is irrefutable when it seeks to benefit both the individual and the public purse.

We also know that not all seniors experience poor health; many stay fit and healthy long into their later years and not just because they exercise or eat healthily and avoid tobacco or excessive amounts of alcohol.

These are the ‘lucky’ ones; or are they?

The researchers want to discover whether there are identifiable links between those who age ‘well’ and those who seem to get old before their time.

Working out of the University of Otago they have developed a panel of 18 biomarkers which allow them to compare an individual’s ‘biological’ age with their ‘chronological’ age.

These markers include blood pressure, white blood cell count, liver and kidney functions as well as physical ability and cognitive powers.

They also include an assessment of how old the patients ‘looks’ based upon the baseline of all the other participants of the same age.

As subjects they are using more than a thousand men and women born during 1972-73 in New Zealand’s South Island city of Dunedin.

Each of those taking part in the study has had their health tracked from birth and were checked for the 18 biomarkers at age 26, 32 and 38.

In publishing their first set of findings the team were able to confirm that the majority of subjects’ results showed them clustered around their own age, as we would expect.

But the team’s interest is in the outliers, the subjects who rated much older or younger than their contemporaries on the ‘biological’ scale.

The results indicate a biological age range of between 30 and 60 for the 38 year old subjects.

They were also able to confirm that the ‘older looking’ subjects were already experiencing a deterioration in mental acuity and physical ability while the ‘younger’ subjects were showing clear signs of a far healthier and trouble-free prognosis than their contemporaries.

The study is set to continue and hopes to refine its observations to provide a more empirical measure of the ageing process which may, in turn, lead to the identification of warning markers of problems to come in individual cases at a much earlier stage.

And that could be the answer to a lot of prayers as we all move toward a more senior society.



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